Word attack: single word reading

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The skills required to read polysyllabic words are typically not taught but acquired naturally by the more proficient readers in class. Readers for whom reading is effortless are of course likely to read more and therefore to improve reading fluency and accuracy. They typically have a good memory for spelling patterns/good word recognition and apply this readily from reading to writing.

How important is it to teach word attack skills, the skills to deconstruct and decode polysyllabic words?

In her talk at the PATOSS conference this year, Dr Marketa Caravolas talked about the importance of the Triple Foundation Model : Rapid Naming, Phoneme Awareness and Letter Knowledge.

These areas appear to be significant predictors of early reading across alphabetic orthographies (writing systems). Rapid naming measures the speed at which a student can access the name for an object – typically a noun – or glyph (such as a number or letter), this ability strongly correlates with word recognition.

Phoneme awareness measures a student’s ability to acknowledge and manipulate units of sound, and letter knowledge is knowing not just letter sounds, but the names of letters and how to recode the sounds in writing. Both of these elements improve with practice and explicit teaching.

Dr Caravolas shared research which suggests that as word reading becomes more efficient in more consistent orthographies (such as Spanish), its contribution to reading comprehension reduces and the role of oral language increases.

However, as English is low consistency, word reading is a stronger predictor of reading comprehension compared to e.g. Czech and Spanish.

The danger of using word reading/fluency skills as an indicator of higher-level comprehension skills was pointed out: code-related and oral language/comprehension skills are not necessarily correlated. This means that as Professor Wagner (author of the CTOPP) discussed, oral or listening comprehension may be higher than reading comprehension.

It was interesting to hear that word reading is not necessarily a predictor of comprehension in more transparent orthographies but that this skill does impact in English.

There is a move in the States led by people such as @natwexler, away from the importance of skills-based instruction, such as summarising, toward the importance of subject knowledge in reading comprehension based on research indicating that predominantly skills-based instruction does little to improve overall reading proficiency for many students.

In the baseball study which has created an impact, for example, Donna Recht and Lauren Leslie found that “struggling readers who knew a lot about baseball did better on a reading comprehension test about the topic than strong readers who knew nothing about the sport,” (Holly Korbey). Similarly, high school students who “met a basic knowledge threshold on a dense topic like ecosystems had much stronger performance on a reading test about ecosystems than those who didn’t,” Korbey notes. “For low-income students and students of color, these disparities were particularly pronounced.”

This makes sense of course and teachers are much better placed to teach knowledge than to teach reading (in which they receive no – or little – training). Nonetheless, single word reading is the driver for comprehension, particularly in a complex orthography like English.

How do we ensure that a reading comprehension test measures what is is supposed to measure – understanding – rather than the ability to decode?

Teach inference and prediction.

Whilst Reading Recovery has had a lot of bad press – it did not focus enough on phonics and was a very expensive intervention – longitudinal data shows that students go on to continue to make steady gains in reading. One of the reasons for this is probably because the skills of inference and prediction are coached and embedded.

By the way, I would NEVER say ‘Use the picture for a clue!’. Research here:


If skills of inference and prediction are taught, pupils are able to try and work out what the new vocabulary means, just as they do in spoken language, via multiple exposures to the words, in different contexts.

Furthermore, the tools used to measure comprehension ought to be broader in their scope, reflecting a broader range of experiences and not just white, middle class ones. Indeed, the construct of the ‘Word Gap’ which has been so popular, based on extrapolated data from seven families, might better reflect a gap in the tools used to measure vocabulary.

More about this here:

After the basics of reading are taught in KS1, reading is left to develop for most children with many of them getting lost as words grow in syllables and complexity.

Students tend to stop reading aloud after a point and develop bad habits such as skimming over new words and either replacing them with a non/made up word or for something similar, which may impact negatively on comprehension.

I would argue for a second wave of explicit teaching, aimed at single word strategies to include morphology (word structure) and syllable division – including the important role of vowels (in open and closed syllables).

Tips for single word reading:

Teach the study of word structure (known as morphology), more on that here:


Teach how to split words into syllables and the role of open and closed syllables – do students know what the 5 vowels are and that they can make 2 sounds in words? Encourage them to trial both sounds if the word does not sound right (known as Set for Variability).

Where a vowel digraph or trigraph can be pronounced different ways, encourage students to trial both sounds to see what sounds right.

Where a word has prefixes and suffixes, encourage the student to identify these first, decode the rest of the word and then add them on at the end e.g., cious = /shus/

The process of decoding involves sounds being identified and sequenced (involving working memory), in order to pronounce the word, there is another step where sounds must be matched to a word in the individual’s lexicon (private dictionary).

Students with dyslexia often struggle here. It is not that they don’t know the word, but that they struggle to match the phonemes and pronounce the word from their lexicon AT THE SAME TIME.

Professor Richard Wagner (author of the CTOPP) spoke about this: in dyslexia, the semantic information (meaning of the word) often comes before the phonemes are in Long Term Memory.

Therefore, my next tip is to LOOK AWAY from the phonemes when pronouncing a known word (that they haven’t read before/ often) – they have decoded the word and know what it means, the phonemes are distracting as they need to access the semantic information from their lexicon in order to sequence them. This works.

Teach students to self-monitor – ‘Does what I have just read make sense?’.

Teach inference and prediction: What might the word mean in this context? What is the author going to say next?’

Teach etymology – if a student knows that ‘fort’ is French for strength, it gets them to ‘fortify’, ‘fortitude’ and ‘effort’.

For some students, it’s helpful for them to write the novel word out as they get to experience its structure in this way.

Teach single word reading together with spelling as part of word study, teach word class which will enhance the knowledge of word structure e.g., adding ‘tion’ can change a verb into a noun: inform -information.

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